In Which We Disagree With Gail Collins, For Maybe The First Time

Jul 09, 2008 | Updated May 25, 2011

I rather agreed with Clark Hoyt's take on Maureen Dowd's campaign columns, as expressed in his Public Editor column of last Sunday. In addressing the question of sexism in campaign coverage (and please, note that we're talking coverage here, not outcome), he noted that Dowd's work had been the subject of frequent reader complaints about gender stereotyping about Hillary Clinton. (Wait, is likening her to a nagging housewife a gender stereotype? Just checking.) Here's what Hoyt had to say:

Dowd's columns about Clinton's campaign were so loaded with language painting her as a 50-foot woman with a suffocating embrace, a conniving film noir dame and a victim dependent on her husband that they could easily have been listed in that Times article on sexism, right along with the comments of Chris Matthews, Mike Barnicle, Tucker Carlson or, for that matter, [Bill] Kristol, who made the Hall of Shame for a comment on Fox News, not for his Times work.

Here was Collin's rejoinder:

Your complaint about Maureen seems to be that many supporters of Hillary Clinton found her columns offensive...When the public editor laces into an opinion page columnist for making fun of a controversial political figure, it sounds like a suggestion that all of us tone things down. I hope I'm hearing wrong.

Actually Hoyt's — and my — complaint about Maureen was that her columns were suffused with loaded gender stereotypes, which she used to bash a woman running for president. Yes, it's true that she also used gender sterotypes to attack Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and if you think it's sexist to diss a guy with girly-wimpy imagery, well then, that was often sexist too. But overall, the complaint was about Dowd's hyper-genderized attacks on Clinton — attacks that leaned heavily on an image of her as controlling/unfeminine/calculating/shrill/needy/riding her husband's coattails, with a healthy dollop of oh-and-by-the-way-your-husband's-a-raging-philanderer. When Dowd wrote after Clinton's concession last month that "Hillary thrillingly proved herself the best debater and the toughest candidate while being shorter and having the higher voice," I double-taked to be sure I was reading the right columnist, so alien did the sentiment (not to mention the substance-based observation) seem.

It is, to my mind, disingenous to write off claims that Dowd's columns were often guilty of gratuitous gender bias as sore-loser complaints against attacks on politicians. Politicians are out there to be scrutinized, and that scrutiny often fairly comes in the form of attacks. The difference is when those attacks are levied unfairly. There's unfair on the merits (i.e. mischaracterizing her position on health care) and there's unfair on the delivery, which is the charge levied against Dowd. To gloss over that distinction is to say that there was no sexism in the campaign because Hillary lost fair and square. She sure did, but there sure was.

Gail Collins should rest easy — the NYT Opinion page seems like the last place where language is being chilled; they hired Bill Kristol, for God's sake. I did not read Hoyt's column as a warning shot for the op-ed columnists to "tone things down"; nowhere did he mention Frank Rich or Paul Krugman or David Brooks, except to point out that Dowd and Kristol were the only columnists singled out as showing gratuitous gender bias. (Rich, in fact, is a great example of a highly critical columnist backing up strong opinions with strong arguments.)

So Gail, yes, much as we loved your latest column, you did hear wrong: Hoyt's criticism of Dowd was meant for Dowd, because it was earned by Dowd. He made that clear by citing examples, comparing it against the established opinion-page norm, and considering Dowd's previous history of gender-spoofery. That sounds to me like a model for anyone on the opinion page to emulate: Have a strong opinion, just be sure to back it up. And be fair about it. Or at least try not to be too much like a nagging housewife.

Hoyt: Pantsuits And The Presidency
Collins: "I Hope I'm Hearing Wrong" [NYT]

Highly, Highly Recommended:
Thought-Process Flowchart: Maureen Dowd